Mr Cunningham Won’t Make it Through the Night
A short story by Adam Steedman Thake
“I always feared. That it would end this way,” he said, blankly. “I suppose it’s what. Everyone fears. Really. Deep down. Oh, spiders and the dark. Are more immediate terrors. But no one wants. To end up like. This.”
His breathing was slow and shallow. The old synapses between brain and lung were firing more slowly. Words were becoming more and more difficult to force out, barely audible above the methodical beep of machines cataloguing his ebb.
“Now, now, don’t talk like that. It’s just one of those facts of life, right now you’re just about to take your next big step. Like your first day of school, it’s scary, but it’s exciting.”
“You’ve not been. Doing this long. Have you?” he said.
The young nurse sat beside his bed blushed. “You’re my first real patient who’s…” she paused to pick her next phrase.
She bowed her head. “I wasn’t going to say -”
“Well what good are you? Can’t cure me. Can’t even talk straight to me. What are you here for?” The exertion was too much. A sudden fit of coughing overcame him. The nurse shot to her feet to stop him falling out of bed as his whole body heaved and shook from the effort.
“I’m sorry.” she said solemnly, after he had stopped. “If you don’t want me here, I understand if-”
“No. Don’t leave.” He repositioned himself, sighing with relief as he sank back against his pillows. “You’re all I’ve got now. And. I don’t even. Know you.”
“I tried to call your daughter, but there was no answer. I’ll try again if you’d…” she gestured to leave, leaving her words unfinished.
“No. It’s all right. She wouldn’t come. Any way.”
“Don’t say that. I’m sure she would-”
“With all respect,” he interrupted, “even if we haven’t spoken. In years. I think I know. My Francesca. Better than you.”
“Of course, I didn’t mean to offend.”
“Don’t worry,” he smiled. “You didn’t. I’m the one. Who offended her.”
“What happened?” she realised too late the presumptuousness of her query.
“Now now. That would be. Telling,” he chuckled softly, before coughing took over. “I suppose. There’s no use. In hiding. Anymore.”
“I didn’t mean to pry.”
“You don’t mean. A lot of things. It appears,” a dry smile cracked his lips, sending ripples of wrinkles up his cheeks. “I. I was not. A good man,” he continued. “I left. I left Francesca. I left her mother. I left them all.”
The nurse stayed silent, waiting for the story to continue. She leant in, to hear his weak voice more clearly.
“She was young. Francesca. But not young enough. To not know. What I was doing. She knew. She knew I. I had betrayed. Her and her mother. I had no reason. Greed? We were happy. But I wanted. The forbidden. Fruit.”
“You had an affair? That’s not that bad. I mean, it isn’t great, but -”
“If only it. Was so simple.” He shook his head, meekly. “I left them. Not for another. Just for me. To be alone. I wanted. To be free. I wanted. To live. I chose myself. I didn’t choose. Francesca. After I left. I tried to apologise. I tried to make amends. But Franny-” he paused as a slight quiver passed over his bottom lip. He bit it. “Now look at me. A life free. But a life. Wasted. Alone. Here. Dying. Telling you the sad, old story. Of a sad, old man.”
Another coughing fit engulfed him. Again, the nurse assumed the role of anchor. Spluttering and sweating, he clung to the nurse’s overalls. Great rasping breaths bled into crashing coughs, the body trying to expel the irremovable from the lungs. When he had finished, a red spatter dotted her smock.
“Blood,” he began. “Sorry.”
“If you want to alleviate the pain, you can always press the morphine button. It’ll make it easier.”
“If I do. Will-”
“You’ll just drop off to sleep. You won’t feel a thing.”
“No. I mean. Will you…”
“I’ll still be here.”
He smiled, quietly, settling himself back into bed. With one hand, he held hers. With the other, he gently thumbed the button.
“Thank you. I’m glad. You’re here. Franny.”